Eta's leading political supporters jailed

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Spain's Supreme Court jailed the 23 leaders of the pro-Eta Herri Batasuna party for seven years each yesterday for collaborating with terrorist gunmen, in a verdict expected to have a profound impact on the conflict in the Basque Country.

The three judges also fined the accused 500,000 pesetas (pounds 2,100) each and banned them from public office for the duration of their sentence. The leaders, who are to appeal to Spain's Constitutional Court, were found guilty of distributing an Eta video that showed armed and masked men during last year's general election campaign. They were acquitted on more serious charges of apology for terrorism and membership of an "armed band".

Margarita Mariscal de Gante, the justice minister, said the conviction applied to "some individuals" and was not "the persecution of a political organisation and its ideas" - which suggests the government does not intend to ban the organisation.

It is the first time in 20 years of HB's legal existence that a legal judgment has recognised a link between the party and armed Basque separatists. HB has always denied the link, saying: "We support Eta's aims but not their methods".

Yesterday's verdict is thought likely to make HB redefine its relationship with the armed organisation, perhaps to assert a greater autonomy from it. "They're already thinking of a replacement leadership, whether or not the present leaders go to jail," said Joseba Eguibar, a leader of the conservative Basque National Party, some weeks ago. "They know, after the massive anti-Eta demonstrations in the summer, that only their own people will back a protest against a conviction."

1Abel Matutes, the foreign minister, insisted yesterday that Spain would not accept Britain's demand that it should lift military restrictions on Gibraltar. Britain says it will not approve a streamlined Nato structure that would integrate Spain fully into the alliance, unless Madrid allows the movement of aircraft and ships in and out of the colony.

Mr Matutes said Spain's sovereignty claim left him with no room for manoeuvre. "We have to maintain the restrictions because this is part of our sovereignty claim over the area where the airport is located. We have never accepted Britain's occupation of this area." Nato should have asked for restrictions to be lifted in in 1982 when Spain joined, Mr Matutes said. "No one asked then, or subsequently. You can't ask now just because you're changing the structure. It would imply that Spain had to pay a toll for collaborating in Nato. We cannot accept that."